This week has been a gut punch. I should not be surprised that yet another Hollywood executive has been harassing, abusing, and assaulting women for years, or that he knew that his money and his power and his company would protect him (and they did). I should not be surprised that so many friends, role models, mentors, and colleagues have written “me too” on social media. Even so, this week has left me doubled over and breathless.
Among the many horrifying truths being uncovered is that so many women who have spoken out—about Harvey Weinstein’s aggressions, about their own experiences—were terrified that sharing their story would derail their careers and isolate them from their community.
Actor Terry Crews, who came out this week about his own sexual assault by a Hollywood executive, put the problem bluntly. Recounting why he decided not to come out with his experience until now, he wrote on Twitter: “I decided not 2 take it further becuz I didn’t want 2b ostracized— par 4 the course when the predator has power n influence.”
To me, that is the power of isolation at work: to silence us, and to entrench power structures that put a crown on Harvey Weinstein’s head and a target on the back of any woman—any person—who tries to stand up for themselves.
That is why, alongside my outrage, I am also feeling awe. Awe for the people—12 million and counting on Facebook alone—who have stepped forward to post, comment, or react. Each “me too” feels like an act of defiance in the face of that power structure, one drop in a mounting wave that is surging toward the shores of justice. I feel overwhelmed with pride for those who have spoken out, even as it breaks my heart that so many have a story to share.
Their story cannot end here. How can we honor the survivors who have relived their trauma in public? How can we make sure that #metoo does not drift away like #YesAllWomen, #ItsOnUs, #WhatWereYouWearing, and so many of its predecessors? What will it take to transform this moment of attention into meaningful action?
For starters, all of those in power who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein need to reflect that anger in the policies they create. Lawmakers everywhere could take a note from France, whose own hashtag movement, #BalanceTonPorc (“expose your pig”), has already inspired legislative proposals to fine men for catcalling and otherwise harassing women in public.
Americans are signaling a desire for their leaders to act. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on October 17 shows that 64 percent of Americans think sexual harassment is a “serious” problem compared to just 47 percent in 2011. Laws don’t always change culture, but at least women who find themselves the victims of harassment or abuse might have legal recourse. Provincial legislators in Ontario, Canada set a good example last year when they passed a law making it easier for employees to launch complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Industry and labor organizations need to assume a greater responsibility to protect women. Canadian actor Mia Kirshner recently detailed in The Globe and Mail a series of steps that entertainment industry unions could take, such as enforcing the idea that “no more meetings for anything related to work be held in hotel rooms,” strengthening the system of investigating harassment cases, protecting actors who’ve been blacklisted for speaking out, and providing better mental health support to survivors of abuse.
And for all of us who have wondered What can I do?, I would echo Aparna Nancherla’s call to meet every “me too” with “I believe you”—and, more than that, with “I believe in you.” This is especially crucial when we consider people who may be marginalized in other ways—as immigrants or refugees, ethnic or racial minorities, people with disabilities, older people, and more. Too often, our culture belittles women’s experiences, downplays the impact of a traumatic moment, disparages women for speaking up, or, when they do finally raise their voice, asks why they didn’t do it sooner. And these injustices are multiplied for women who are not white, wealthy, or straight.
The sum of these injustices is a society that forces women to tolerate, even accommodate those who have committed unspeakable acts against them. In the words of the brilliant writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm…We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.”
Imagine the sound of the world’s women exhaling. First a sigh, then a song, then a roar.